Thursday, December 28, 2023

Beautiful and Painful

As there seems to be a never ending supply of news from the war in Israel, many important headlines tend to be overlooked. One headline this week that I think should have gotten a lot more attention was from the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. He reportedly said that Israel currently finds itself on a seven-front war! Let that digest. It's rare for a country to fight a two or even a three-front war. A seven-front war has been unimaginable. Gallant told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, "We are in a multi-front war. We are being attacked from seven different arenas: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Judea and Samaria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran." He later added that Israel has responded to six of these areas. Another news item about the war that is not at the top of the news cycle but nonetheless worthy of attention is the economic toll. Every day costs the Israeli economy in the area of 300 million dollars. Let that number sink in. The generosity of North American Jews has been remarkable. In just the first month of the war, it raised a billion dollars. The Jewish Federations of North America is responsible for $602 million; the rest came from various groups and friendship associations. I am not aware of any campaign in the Jewish world raising one billion dollars in a single month. It sounds beyond incredible. The reality is that money would last about three days in this war. At the end of this week, we will be entering the thirteenth week of the war and Israeli officials are preparing the public for several months ahead. Of course, the highest cost Israel continues to pay is in human life. Nearly every day brings reports of deaths to IDF soldiers. I am struck by so many photos of the fallen. Their faces project optimism, happiness, and strength. They paid the ultimate price so the Jewish People can continue to live in its embattled ancestral home. Amidst all the mind-numbing pieces on our news feed, an anecdote stood out to me as both exceptionally painful and exceptionally beautiful simultaneously. Several days ago, the heartbreaking news broke that Yotam Haim was among three hostages mistaken for terrorists and accidentally killed by the IDF in Gaza earlier this month. Iris Haim, the mother of Yotam addressed the soldiers of the unit that mistakenly killed her son. She said, "I wanted to tell you that I love you very much, that I hug you here from afar, and I know that what happened is not your fault at all. I ask you to take care of yourself." She added, "the soldiers are doing the best thing in the world that can help us, as the people of Israel. We all need you healthy". This war has brought forward tremendous amounts of both pain and brotherhood. Our People's faith has been tested for thousands of years and again in our times. As 2023 comes to a close, we pray for better headlines in 2024. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 22, 2023

Praying at Night

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled on a solidarity mission to Israel. My goal was to bring supplies and strength from America. What struck me most was that while the supplies were in desperate need, the strength was not. The Israeli people have bonded together in unity and faith in an incredible way. Israelis know they are living in dangerous times, but they also know deep in their core with unwavering certainty that their cause is just, and they will ultimately prevail with God's help. As you walk around the country, despite the heavy toll of war, there is an overall sense of conviction. Therefore, in an ironic twist, I left my support mission drawing from their strength rather than the other way around. What I am particularly blown away by is that usually, in dark times, people experience crises of faith; they wonder where God is and how to connect to Him when we feel so physically and emotionally battered. And yet, it seems that those of us in the Diaspora on the proverbial "sidelines" are experiencing this rather than the "in the game." Why is this? In this week's Torah portion, our forefather Yaakov prepares to go down to Egypt. He never wanted to go down to Egypt and was somewhat frightened by the dangers of leaving the Holy Land of Israel. A strange detail is included in the ensuing episode where G-d speaks to Yaakov as he is on the journey to Egypt to offer him support and words of strength. The Torah deems it important to mention that this conversation happened "B'maarat Ha'lailah" (vision by night). Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (the Meshech Chachmah), a fascinating Torah commentator from the pre-war era, explains that the specific mention that this was happening at night was meant to be an allusion to dark times. Yaakov, in general, often connects to God in the night, such as when he wrestles with an angel and has the dream of the heavenly ladder. Moreover, our sages tell us that Yaakov is the forefather who implemented Maariv, our nighttime service of praying to God. Therefore, in other words, the Mescech Chachma explains that what we are talking about here is not so much a "time" but a state of mind or even events. The night represents darkness, which further signifies when we don't see the hand of God so readily. When Yaakov was going to Egypt, Hashem told him that He would be with him even in the dark times. Furthermore, it is critical to note that Rashi points out that the reason God came to Yaakov at this juncture was because Yaakov was feeling "Meitzar" (constricted). Although this term denotes stress and anxiety, it also literally translates as "constricted" which is a direct allusion to where Yaakov was headed (Mitzraim). It is not a coincidence that Mitzraim comes from the word constriction, as it was a dark place devoid of G-d. Right now, we feel as if we are in a dark place on a national level. But we must remember that in every generation, there is a "Mitzraim," and despite those hard times, God is with us just as he was with our forefather Yaakov who was feeling "confined." When he was 15 and a prisoner at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel watched as three Jewish scholars put God on trial for indifference to the suffering of his people — and found him guilty. After the verdict, Wiesel said, there was silence, and then the participants all sat down to evening prayers. As we find ourselves in unprecedented times with a whole host of challenges, it is once again time to pray at night. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 15, 2023

Appreciating Everyday Miracles

One of the primary themes of Chanukah is revisiting the meaning of a miracle. The conventional understanding of a miracle is an extraordinary supernatural event that upends the natural order of the world, akin to the splitting of the sea or the plagues in Egypt. Our Rabbis have taught that our daily lives are filled with miracles, and we are the recipients of phenomenal and incredible miracles. We witness babies born, apples growing, and many other fantastic events that regularly occur. Somehow, because of the frequency of these occurrences, we become desensitized to these miracles and lose appreciation to G-d for orchestrating all these amazing realities. Only when we are deprived of these blessings do we begin to fully appreciate how special and fortunate we have been to be the worthy recipient of these miracles. I think of this during Chanukah as a response to the famous question posed by Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) as to why we celebrate Chanukah for eight nights. After all, if the Jews had enough oil for the first night, the fact that the fire remained burning for an additional seven nights should be the reason to celebrate Chanukah for seven nights! Why, then, do we celebrate Chanukah for eight nights? I want to suggest that with our expanded understanding of miracles, it would be worthy to celebrate all the miracles in life, including the hidden miracles. That means being attentive to all aspects of the Chanukah story and not just that oil burned for an additional eight nights. As we gathered around our Menora for the last eight nights, we celebrated not only the famous historical miracles that our people experienced centuries ago. It was also a celebration of the hidden miracles in our lives. As Chanukah comes to an end, let us recommit to being attentive to noticing the hidden miracles in our everyday life and give proper thanks to the Al-Mighty! Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 8, 2023

Ivy League Heads Strike Out

Just when we think we have seen everything, we get thrown a new curveball. I don't think it was news to anyone that college campuses, especially Ivy League campuses, were hostile to Jewish students. That being said, watching the congressional testimony of the leadership from premier universities was jarring and painful. The complete abdication of moral leadership was shocking. When asked repeatedly by a member of Congress if calling for the genocide and mass violence of the Jewish People would violate the university code of conduct, the university heads equivocated and couldn't outright declare that it would violate the code of conduct. One could only imagine, if the calls for genocide were directed at another minority or ethnic group, what the reaction would be. Part of me thought that perhaps we should not be surprised. In the Parsha we read last week, several dots are unusually placed over a word that indicates a larger message. The context of this verse is Esav's reconciliation with his brother Yaakov. After years of wanting to kill Yaakov, Esav's heart melted, and he embraced him with a kiss. The Hebrew word וישקהו, translated as "and he kissed him," has several dots over the word. Rashi quotes one of the commentaries that these dots indicate a larger message. He writes that it is a "halacha" that Esav hates Yaakov, but at that time, Esav was overwhelmed with compassion and embraced Yaakov. It seems odd that Rashi would choose "halacha" to describe his feelings for Yaakov. After all, the definition of "halacha" is Jewish Law! There doesn't seem to be anything legal about a hateful ideology! Recently, a notable speech given in the U.S. Senate by Senator Schumer shed some light on this issue. He was talking about the sting of the unfair double standard the Jewish People are feeling at this time. Senator Schumer quoted the late Israeli diplomat Abba Ebban by saying, Every time a people gets their statehood, you applaud it. The Nigerians, the Pakistanis, the Zambian, you applaud their getting statehood. There's only one people, when they gain statehood, who you don't applaud, you condemn it — and that is the Jewish people. We Jews are used to that. We have lived with a double standard through the centuries. There were always things the Jews couldn't do… everyone could be a farmer, but not the Jew. Everyone could be a carpenter, but not the Jew. Everyone could move to Moscow, but not the Jew. And everyone can have their own state, but not the Jew. To understand this irrational, hateful ideology, it is helpful to understand the word choice in describing Jew-hatred as a "halacha." Not unlike (but obviously not identical) the laws of physics, the Jew-hatred that exists today is equivalent to a reality that has existed in the world for thousands of years. We have wishfully told ourselves that those days are over and civilization is much more enlightened and less hostile to the Jewish People. Recent events have demonstrated that this "halacha" of Jew-hatred has mutated to unimaginable areas of society. As we gather to light the Chanukah lights this year, let us pray that these lights overpower the darkness. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, December 1, 2023

Solidarity trip to Israel

I found myself surprisingly energized after I returned from my trip to Israel. While I found the mood was somber, there was also a strong feeling of determination, faith, and unity among the embattled Jews in Israel. There is, of course, much pain on so many levels from the horrific attacks on Simchat Torah/ October 7. The crisis is bringing different Jews together as never before. The war is also triggering a reawakening among many Israelis in our shared heritage as Jews and are reconnecting to their roots in a variety of meaningful ways. Here are a few highlights from my trip: Visit with Evacuees: I traveled to visit the evacuees of Shokeda (a town in the Gaza border region) in Neve Ilan, outside of Jerusalem. It was a privilege to meet such wonderful people doing their best to keep it together in difficult times. Many people from our community in Jacksonville contributed to many basic supplies that we brought to the evacuees from Shokeda. As the children from Shokeda last went to school several weeks ago, a temporary school has been set up on the campus of Yad Vashem. We also brought some volumes of Talmud for the students as they are doing their best not to interrupt their studies. Visit to IDF Base: I traveled to an IDF near the Lebanon border. The army is on high alert there as there have been near-daily crossfire exchanges with Hezbollah. We visited Kibbutz Yiftah, which has been evacuated of its civilian presence and is now a closed military zone. (My group was allowed in as we had packages to deliver to soldiers.) I brought supplies and gifts from the Jacksonville community. The soldiers were especially touched with the cards written to them by the pre-schoolers from Torah Academy. I had a meaningful conversation (recorded on our social media channels) with one of the IDF reservists, Rabbi Elchanan Lewis. His day job is as a Rabbinic Advisor for Machon Puah (an organization that supports couples struggling with infertility) and a congregational rabbi in Efrat. He elaborated on the high morale, sense of duty, and reawakening of the Jewish spirit in much of Israel. Yarchei Kallah at Mir Yeshiva: I spent a few days studying at my alma mater, Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I have been privileged to attend a special learning program called the Yarchei Kallah for the last several years. There were over 200 participants who traveled from North America to participate in the Yarchei Kallah. I found that remarkable, considering the country has plunged into war. This year's learning was especially meaningful as we all sensed the critical moments and how Torah Study assists our spiritual battle in what is an essential element of this war. Overall, being in the Land of Israel at this junction point in history was an amazing privilege. Many people expressed their gratitude to me as a representative from our community for coming for this solidarity visit. As I left Israel, I reflected on the close connections the Jewish People have with each other from Jacksonville to Jerusalem. Amy Israel Chai, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, November 10, 2023

Serenity Prayer with a Jewish Flavor

The recent crisis has triggered many different emotions within us, including fear, depression, anxiety, confusion, hope, optimism, dread, and Jewish pride, among other emotions. Many of us want to help if not outright, solve the situation. If you are not a combat soldier for the IDF fighting inside Gaza, there are still things you can do to play a constructive role. Some things are beyond our control, and we must rely on G-d for a good outcome. The vexing question for us is what falls into the former category and what is part of the latter. In times such as these, I reflect on the serenity prayer. The source or author of this prayer is subject to a debate, but its words definitely resonate. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Rabbi Shaul Alter, the Rosh Yeshiva of Gur in Israel, visited Boca Raton Synagogue this week and shared a modified version of the Serenity Prayer with a more traditional flavor. God give me the strength to do what you demand of me and what you ask of me in the current situation. And give me the strength to trusting you when it comes to matters that are not in my hands and that I cannot change. Give me the wisdom to differentiate in times of confusion, fog, and doubt to know which areas I need to act upon and which areas need to trust in you. While prayer and faith are fundamental to Judaism, we are sometimes called upon to action. Everyone needs to assess for themselves their capacity for action. For some, it is traveling to Washington to participate in the mass rally to stand for Israel. For others, it strengthens their Torah Study and time spent on meaningful prayer. There are numerous actionable items that can practically make a difference, as I detailed in our weekly Israel Crisis Update. For that reason, I made the decision to travel to Israel for eight days this coming week. I plan on visiting with Israeli soldiers and displaced residents as an expression of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in our homeland. I also plan on attending the Yarchei Kallah learning program in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I will not be there as an individual but rather as a representative of our community who will be conveying messages of love, brotherhood, and unity from our community in Jacksonville. One bright spot of this crisis has been the renaissance of the unified Jewish spirit that binds us all together yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Monday, November 6, 2023

Time to Make Kiddush

With the steady news drip coming over from Israel, there was a damning statement coming from the FBI director that deserves attention. Christopher Wray, the FBI National Director, stated, “In fact, our statistics would indicate that for a group (Jewish Americans) that represents only about 2.4% of the American public, they account for something like 60% of all hate crimes,” Wray said of the Jewish American population. He added that this is not a time for panic but rather for vigilance especially as the war in Israel intensifies. There are too many examples to note of active Jew hatred becoming less isolated and more prominent in nearly all arenas of society. (It’s also important to note that we have many friends and allies here that have shown us support in these challenging times.) All things considered, the antisemitism in the United States is mild compared to most countries. Homes in Paris and Berlin were defaced with paintings of Jewish stars on the homes of Jews. This was of course reminiscent of a much darker time in our history when this occurred in Germany. From an airport in Dagestan to demonstrations in Western Europe to people ripping down posters of innocent hostages abducted by Hamas, it feels like the world has once again turned on us. I have spoken to many community members, and I hear the fear and anxiety in their voices. I would like to suggest sharing a perspective about utilizing this crisis as an opportunity for growth. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, a sage from the 18th century in Lithuania, famously stated, “If the Jew does not make kiddush, the non-Jew will make havdalah.” Translation: A Jew must embrace his identity that he has a greater responsibility in this world to spread Godliness and holiness. The reality is that Jews are different and distinct from other nations. It is not because we believe in racial superiority, but as we accepted the Torah from God, we have a higher mission and greater responsibilities. While all of humanity must keep the basic Noahide Laws, the Jewish Nation must uphold all of the Mitzvos as part of our eternal covenant. For centuries, many Jews have deluded themselves into thinking there is no difference in being Jewish. Many people have tried to solve the problem of anti-Semitism by various approaches. In the 19th century in Germany, some championed actively assimilating into Western Society by removing any reference to returning to Zion and Jerusalem. The mantra sadly became “ Berlin is our Jerusalem.” Others thought that the anti-Semitism would be solved if we created our own state. The rationale was that we are hated because we are viewed as nomads in a foreign land. If only we had our own independent state we would no longer be hated. The sad irony is that about a hundred years later, the number one reason for anti-Semitism is the reality that we have an independent Jewish State. It’s time for us to embrace the reality that, yes, we are different and have more responsibilities in this world. If we continue to delude ourselves that we are no different than everyone else, we will continue to be reminded by our adversaries that we are different. The Sage from Volozhin succinctly framed this point in history for our generation. We can continue to let the non-Jews make havdallah, or we can make kiddush. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, October 27, 2023

A Nation Dwells Alone

A bitter irony that has emerged since the war that Hamas recently initiated has been the clarity we have received about our standing in the world. The initial shock from the attacks and subsequent condemnation of the depravity committed by Hamas has transitioned to nuanced and equivocal statements from other nations as they counsel Israel on how to defend itself against an existential threat. Russia demanded an immediate ceasefire and a promise from Israel to allow the delivery of humanitarian into Gaza. This is especially rich as Russia has deliberately targeted the civilian infrastructure of Ukraine. Independent accounts have confirmed that over 27,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed since it began the war against Ukraine less than two years ago. Considering the high casualties, would it consider a ceasefire in its war against Ukraine? Not to be outdone in its anti-Semitic rhetoric, Turkey said that Hamas aren't terrorists; they're mujahideen defending the homeland. As I wasn't sure what mujahideen are, I looked up the definition, and mujahideen are Muslims who fight on behalf of their faith and the Muslim community. This statement came from a NATO ally that America supplies advanced fighter jets. Here in America, much has been reported about the inaction of Ivy League universities to condemn unadulterated Jew hatred that is proliferated on its campuses. Pro-Hamas rallies are taking place nationwide, and its supporters are more assertive in their contempt for the Jewish People. I mention all this not to make everyone more depressed but rather to encourage some reflection. For thousands of years, Jews were targeted by violent mobs who killed and pillaged our ancestors. There was some wishful thinking that those tragic memories were permanently in our rearview mirror. At the very least, if a violent mob would ever unleash a pogrom against our people, the enlightened world would condemn those actions and come to our defense. The Jewish People are referred to a הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב. This passage is translated as a nation that dwells alone and is not respected among the nations. In this week Parsha, God promises Avraham the Land of Israel, and this promise was subsequently codified to Yitzchak and Yaakov and their descendants. The Land of Israel is so holy and unique that other faiths and people continue their thousands of years of practice of killing Jews to claim that they are the true heirs to the Land. It's essential to embrace our status in the world and work on being worthy heirs to this precious gift as other nations continue to be tepid with their support. It's important to remember the Talmudic teaching that we have no one to rely on but our Father in Heaven. Let's continue to plead with Him that Israel can defeat the forces that want its demise. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, October 20, 2023

Rising to the Occasion

Everything is not OK. The trauma of the events that unfolded in Israel starting on Simchas Torah is settling in and not going away. Pogroms from the past that we thought was distant history has reared its ugly head, and the unimaginable and unthinkable has occurred. The immediate future is very unsettling as Israel prepares to send its brave young people into harm's way as it fights for the Jewish People's survival. In another unprecedented development, hundreds of thousands of Jews who live near the northern and southern borders have evacuated from their communities. It's important to reflect on appropriate reactions to these developments. Obviously, this is a highly emotional and charged issue. We are so connected to Israel in many ways that it triggers an emotional response. We are obsessively checking the news, and that is understandable. At a certain point, it may be worthwhile to ask ourselves if constantly checking the news is the best way to spend our time. It's essential to focus on what actionable items we can do at this sensitive time that actually make a difference. I have been heartwarmed from the outpouring of love we have witnessed from Jews worldwide to assist our brothers and sisters in Israel. On a financial level, there was unprecedented support, with Israel Bonds reporting 200 million dollars of bond purchases in one week. The national UJA Federations announced a 500 million dollar emergency campaign, and within a week, they had already raised 388 million dollars. These are just two organizations of so many that are channeling the support of Jews of America into action. I was proud of our community that came together and opened their hearts to contribute to the drive that Rabbi Joey Hamaoui organized generously. A steady stream of people from all over the community came into our shul lobby and dropped off goods and supplies to be sent to Israel. Several vehicles drove to Miami (thank you to all the amazing drivers) to transport the supplies, where they were sorted and packed for shipment to Israel. Our community contributed approximately 500 pounds of supplies which were shipped on one palette. All together, from donations throughout the country, 100 palettes were shipped from Miami this week to Israel! As the war is expected to intensify and more people may be displaced from their homes, we anticipate future drives for this worthy cause. Another way of contributing to the effort is, of course through prayer. There is a website tehillimlechayal.org, that has a list of names for about 17,000 soldiers. Every time you go to the site, it links you to a specific soldier for whom you can pray. As of today there were over 188,000 chapters of Tehillim recited on that website alone. The nation of Israel is in a crisis it has not seen in decades. The call is for all hands on deck. There are so many actionable things that we can do to make a difference. Let's rise to the moment! Have a peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, October 13, 2023

Israel in Crisis

This past week has been one of unparalleled trauma for the Jewish People. The unthinkable and unimaginable has occurred and continues to unfold. Israeli Soldiers who came to the villages after the brazen terror attacks described scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. A significant component of the trauma is that the creation of the modern Jewish State with a powerful army was to ensure the carnage against our people from ever occurring again. The slogan of Never Again seems a bit hollow at the moment. The ideology of unadulterated Jew-hatred has been bequeathed from the Nazis to Hamas. Unfortunately, this is not a new situation. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Al Husseini, was a personal friend of Hitler and shared the Nazi ideology. Hamas and its cousins are the heirs of this ideology that puts a premium on and rejoices with the killing of Jews. In a larger sense, they are the heirs to a very long list of rabid Jew haters in our history. From Babylon to Rome to Berlin, they have risen to destroy our people. Despite the great pain and suffering, they have never been successful. As we recite in the Haggadah, “It was not just the Pharaoh that rose up against our people. Rather, in every generation, they rise up against us, and the Almighty saves us from their hands.” At this moment, it would be appropriate to embrace our feelings of vulnerability, and turn towards G-d, and beseech Him for heavenly mercy. The IDF soldiers are in a very precarious situation and have a long and difficult road ahead of them to restore security to its borders. Some of us who live in America feel at a loss as to what we can do to contribute for Israel. There are many ways one can be supportive of our brothers and sisters. It’s important that people of Israel do not feel alone at this time. I have been in contact with some friends and family in Israel this week, and they expressed their appreciation for the messages of love and support they get from Jews living in the diaspora. A silver lining to the crisis is the unity and solidarity that we see among our people. All political and religious differences suddenly seem so trivial. There has been an outpouring of kindness, goodness, and love from one another. Haman, an ancestor (in ideology) to Hamas, stated that the Jewish People are so divided, which is why he thought he could eliminate us. Esther instructed Mordechai to unify all Jews and come together for prayer. That strategy paid off as we defeated Haman and his cronies. It’s imperative that we continue to seek ways to unify and build bridges with one another. In that merit, may the Guardian of Israel watch over us and deliver salvation to our people. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, September 22, 2023

Returning to Yourself

The Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is famous for being referred to as Shabbos Shuva. The basic reason for this name is that the Haftorah that is read begins with this word, Shuvah. The truth of the matter is not only is the word Shuva the root of the famous word or idea Teshuva, it is a fundamental idea in Judaism. The meaning of Shuva is return. The puzzling thing about understanding Shuvah or returning is where exactly are we returning to? Did we get lost in any particular place to return to? As far as I can tell, there is no need to return anywhere if I am not lost. The idea of Shuva touches on a much deeper concept regarding body and soul. Our bodies and souls conflict with one another throughout our lives. The body craves earthly pleasures since it is just a product of the earth. However, the soul craves spiritual pleasures since it is a product of the heavens where Almighty G-d resides. The more the body is taken care of and nurtured, the more the soul is neglected, the soul will feel empty and shallow. If this continues for a while, a person may live with many external riches but feel an internal emptiness precisely because his soul has been neglected. Can anyone say mid-life crisis? This is where Shuvah comes in. It's a message to tell your soul to return to its calling of connecting to the service of G-d. The soul ultimately wants to connect, but the distractions of the materialistic world get in the way. Shuvah says don't pay attention to the materialistic distractions. Just let your soul connect to its original mission. It would be a great message all year round but especially poignant a few days before Yom Kippur. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, September 1, 2023

Lethal Hate

The lethal mix of unadulterated hate and unrestricted access for virtually anyone to obtain assault rifles reached our backyard. It was with great sadness that we learned of an individual who killed three people in a racially motivated attack. The murder weapon had insignias of swastikas etched on it. Let that sink in slowly. In 2023, someone from Clay County is so committed to Nazi ideology that he can murder three innocent African American members in broad daylight while they are shopping for groceries. It's essential to stand in solidarity with the local African-American community as they are reeling and hurting from this awful tragedy. As a Jewish community, unfortunately, we have too often been at the other end of similar tragedies, and we have also been forced to bury members of our community because of this unadulterated hate. In 1996, there was a wave of suicide bombings in Jerusalem on the busy Jaffa Street. Particularly, there were coordinated bombings on the number 18 bus line. I recall hearing from someone in Jerusalem at the time they were not concerned for their safety as they did not travel on the number 18 bus! Obviously, that is a sad perspective that reflects one that does not grasp the severity of the situation. Similarly, it's important to understand that haters who target one minority group express hostility to our community. Burying our heads in the sand may provide temporary comfort, but it's an unwise method to address reality. Hateful ideology continued to kill Jews in Israel this month, as five Jews were murdered in terror attacks in the month of August alone. My intent here is not to cause worry or depression but rather to open our eyes to debunk any illusion that we are immune from hate that can cause harm. As our patriarch Yaakov taught, in the face of threats, one must adopt a three-tiered approach of focusing on prayer, diplomacy, and self-defense. Let us double down on embracing this formula as we continue to walk between the raindrops. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 25, 2023

The Art of Listening

Silly season is (un)officially here. America is unique in many ways, including its painfully long election season. In most democratic countries, the election for the highest office in the land is no more than a few weeks. It can be at least a couple of years in the United States. It sometimes feels like about a decade of sitting in a dentist's chair! A significant milestone in the 2024 Presidential Election was the Republican Debate this week. I recognize that I am not qualified to weigh in on who won the debate or who is the best candidate (not necessarily the same). I will opine about the tenor of the dialogue from the debate. Many of the debate participants were basically attempting to talk over each other and shout down the others with well-rehearsed one-liners and zingers that were filled with ridicule and insult to each other. One element that was fairly absent from the debate was anyone listening to each other. The art of listening is an increasingly lost skill. Most people, even if they are listening, are not adequately paying attention to the other person and just formulating their own response. The Gaon of Vilna teaches us how to master the art of listening and its three components. Listening: Pay attention to what the person is saying without interrupting. Appropriate body language of nodding and making eye contact reflects that you are attempting to fully understand what the person is saying. Understanding: Ask follow-up questions to ensure you understand what the person is saying. These questions mustn't be challenging in any way but instead just an attempt to clarify and understand what the person may be saying. It might also be appropriate to respond with a few words indicating you have a keen understanding of what the person may be saying. Accepting: The third element may be the most difficult, especially if you strongly disagree with the other person. Accepting does not mean that you agree with another point of view. Instead, it means that you accept that this is his viewpoint and accept that you might not be aligned with your opinion. It's ok to disagree if it's done in a respectful environment. We must accept that in a diverse world, there are various ways to look at things and figure out a way to disagree in the arena of Derech Eretz. As we are in the month of Elul in preparation for the High Holidays, we are encouraged to mend fences with anyone we locked horns with over the year. Of course, the journey to reconciliation and leaking may take work. It may just start with being open to listening to others. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 18, 2023

Weaponization

Weaponization. This word is on track to be the word of the year! Every time there is another indictment against the former president, about half the country laments about the weaponization of the justice system. On a literal level, the justice system is supposed to be weaponized and capable of prosecuting individuals committing crimes. The weaponization charge intends that it is entirely misdirected and inappropriate utilization of the justice system. Far be it for me to weigh in on such a loft matter! I do, however, have a nomination for a real-life case that has become weaponized. A judge in Montana issued a ruling in the case of Held Vs. Montana, that leads me to believe we live in an alternate reality. The background to the case is that a group brought a lawsuit against the state on behalf of a group of plaintiffs alleging their constitutional right to a clean environment. The case was brought on behalf of more than a dozen Montana residents between 2 and 18 years old when it was filed in March 2020. Yes, you read that correctly. Some of the plaintiffs were two years old, suing the State of Montana that they were being denied their constitutional right to a clean environment. The judge ruled this week in favor of the children and stated, “the plaintiffs’ injuries will grow increasingly severe and irreversible.” Putting aside for a moment the whole climate change conversation and the reality that Montana contributes 0.0862% to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the notion that a group of children including two year olds claiming their constitutional rights to a clean environment were violated is beyond sad. The fact that a Judge actually bought the argument is even more sobering! As our country has been on the slippery slope from a society of responsibility to a society of rights, the feelings of entitlement have caused a corrosive effect in all areas of life. If there is a case of that “weaponization of the year,” this can be a solid candidate! This weeks Parsha is called Shoftim, which is literally translated as judges. The Torah elaborates on what should guide the judicial system. צדק צדק תרדוף (translated literally as justice you shall pursue) is the mandate for judges not to rely on their own conscious or what they might personally think is reasonable but rather to assess whether the claims of the plaintiff or defendant are aligned with Torah law. In the upside-down world of the current judicial system, it might be worthwhile to reread Parshas Shoftim. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 11, 2023

Why Can't You Opt Out of Judaism?

A question that has vexed people for centuries is what makes the Jewish People unique. Judaism is unlike other religions because you cannot renounce your Jewish faith. In other major religions, if you declare that you no longer believe in the fundamental principles of the faith, you are no longer a member of the faith. On a certain level, that makes sense. If religion is about a set of beliefs and you do not subscribe to those beliefs, you would no longer be a member of that faith group. Judaism provides no such disengagement and exit clause. A Jew can fervently declare that he no longer believes in God or the validity of the Torah and might even want to cancel his affiliation with Judaism. He has no such option. No matter how disengaged or disconnected an individual is from Judaism; he is permanently a Jew. If Judaism is not a classical religion, it cannot be qualified as a nationality as there are Jews from all over the world. The Jewish people have a homeland, but for thousands of years, we were in exile and carried nationalities from Poland to Uzbekistan, and they were both equally Jewish. Judaism cannot be categorized as a race as people from multiple races are part of the Jewish faith. This brings me back to my original question: if Judaism cannot be a traditional religion, nationality, or race, what is Judaism, and why has it stirred up so much passion and hatred against its people for centuries? The simple answer to a complex and layered question is found in our weekly Parsha. The Torah states בנים אתם לה' אלהיכם. This is translated as “ You are children to Hashem your G-d”. Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avos expounds on this verse as this is why we are beloved to G-d because we are His children. Although any individual in the world, whether Jewish or not, can have a relationship with G-d and even a portion in the World to Come, the Jewish are unique as we are considered children of G-d. Rabbi Akiva continues to explain the reason the Jews are children is unlike any other nation. We accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai. Put simply, by committing to upholding all the Mitzvos and obligations articulated in the Torah there is more opportunity for connection with G-d. As Rabbi Akiva taught us based on this Parsha, Judaism is not unique because of any other racial superiority but because we accepted a mission to be ambassadors of Godliness and Holiness. The Torah unlocks the unlimited potential of us to be platforms for G-d and His Holiness in this finite and mundane world. However, it’s important to remember that with this greater potential comes greater responsibility. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, August 4, 2023

Marching Down The Chuppah

This week Henny and I experienced the extraordinary blessing of walking down a child to the Chuppah. There are some experiences in life where an attempt to articulate the experience in words fall short and this falls into that category. There are a few thoughts that are marinating in my head this week that I would like to share. Gratitude: We are so grateful to G-d for bringing us to this milestone. Just about one year ago, my family was involved in a major automobile accident. I recall lying at the side of the road in rural Kentucky, waiting in what seemed forever for an ambulance to arrive. I watched my kids drift in and out of consciousness and wasn’t sure what outcome to anticipate. I recall my daughter Rachelli saying shortly afterward, “This is not our world. This is Hashem’s world, and we have the privilege of living in it.” With much prayer, love, and support, our family came back from the brink. I have emerged from that experience with a new sense of gratitude towards all of life’s miracles, no matter how small they may seem. The Talmud teaches that 40 days prior to the conception of a person, it is already decreed to whom the person will marry. This is known in the vernacular as a bashert. Not everyone is fortunate to marry their bashert. After all, we are endowed with free will and can choose to turn away from meeting our bashert. It is with much prayer and grace that one is blessed to actually marry their bashert. Henny and I had a first-row seat to the great blessing of our daughter Tammy finding her bashert in her now husband, Zevi. We are so grateful to G-d for this special privilege. Another thought that occupied my mind this week was the importance of the process. It seems like another world in 2002 when a little girl was born to Henny and me in Jerusalem. We moved to Jacksonville shortly before her second birthday. Parenting is an endeavor that is uneven and unpredictable. Sometimes as parents, we are forced to eat humble pie. In our case, we made the painful decision to send away our kids at a young age so they could pursue an outstanding Jewish education while we stayed in Jacksonville. (The development of a local amazing High School did not exist at that time). Many tears were spilled in those years by members of our family. There were some agonizing moments during those years when we questioned whether our decisions were correct. Unquestionably, the fact that our kids grew up in the warm Jewish Community of Jacksonville, where they were surrounded by love, contributed to their development. As Henny and I took the first steps of marching Tammy down to the Chuppah, I felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to G-d and all the beloved family, friends, and community members for their love, support, and dedication leading up to that moment. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, July 21, 2023

Tisha B'av Reminder in Congress

The United States Congress hosted President Isaac Herzog to deliver a special address to the House of Representatives and the Senate in a joint session. I was honored to be able to attend this historic occasion in person. It was a surreal moment to be in the citadel of American political power and a few feet away from the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Together with most Members of Congress, there were nearly thirty standing ovations for Mr. Herzog. I got goosebumps as he declared, “Am Yisrael Chai,” the Members of Congress exploded in applause. I thought this was an outstanding speech that made many salient points. I was moved by the traditional approach to how he addressed the time of year on the Jewish calendar. This is an excerpt from his speech: In Jewish weddings, a glass is placed on the ground, intentionally stomped on. This ritual evokes the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Only after the glass is broken, can the celebration truly begin. Amidst the most joyous occasion in the lives of two individuals who have come together to build something whole, we recall what was once broken in our nation. Thus, the bitter blends with the sweet. Today, the Hebrew calendar points to the 1st day of the month of Av. In Jewish tradition this is a somber period in which we mourn the loss of our sovereignty. Jewish communities worldwide lament the beginning of our national exile, where we continuously expressed a spiritual connection to our ancestral Holy Land and a longing to return home and regain our independence throughout two millennia. Mr. Herzog underscored the deep connection that Jews have with Zion and Jerusalem. Our tradition teaches us that from the time of the destruction of the Temple (Beis Hamikdash) in Jerusalem, the era of G-d’s Hidden Face (Hester Panim) has intensified. Over the last two millennia, this phase has unfortunately deepened. The stage of Hester Panim has resulted in much confusion, pain, and unthinkable tragedies. As we prepare once again to observe our National Day of Mourning on Tisha B’av, it is worthwhile reflecting on what we are mourning. On a humid July morning at the historic Joint Session of Congress, we once again received a reminder. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, July 14, 2023

Connecting to Jerusalem

Every year, International Quds Day is celebrated on the last Friday of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The event's underlying principle is renewing support for and solidarity with the Palestinians. Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day (translated in English), has become a rallying cry around the world to liberate Palestine from what it calls the illegal Israeli and Zionist occupation. Of course, it is a popular and widely celebrated holiday in Iran, where millions of people march in many cities chanting "Death to Israel." The reality is that Quds Day demonstrations are not limited to Iran or even the Middle East. This year on Quds Day, there were demonstrations in many American cities. As has been the case for several years, event attendance ranged from approximately a dozen to 100 people, including cities such as New York City, Detroit, Seattle, Houston and Sacramento. Protesters at the Fremont Quds Day protest called for an end to Zionism and claimed: "that if Zionism were to cease existing, there would be peace, no racism, and an end to terrorism." That comes from a swanky city in the Bay Area of California, where one is hard pressed to find a home for less than two million! I think of this now as we are in the period leading up to Tisha B'av and are required to reflect upon our connection to Zion and Jerusalem. Are we strong enough in our connection to Jerusalem? There appears to be a gap between where we ought to be as reflected in the Torah and liturgy, and our reality. For example, one of the blessings in the Haftorah (translated) reads, "Have compassion on Zion as it is the house of our lives." Do we think of Zion as the home of our lives? Shmuel Agnon from Israel received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 in Stockholm and said the following in his remarks. "As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But I always regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem." One has to have Zion and Jerusalem as top of mind to utter such words. Our liturgy in the daily Shemonei Esrei prayer has multiple blessings that reflect the Jewish soul yearning for the complete redemption of Zion! The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B'av are important to reinforce our inner connection to Zion and Jerusalem. Let us not squander the moment. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, July 7, 2023

Freedom

Joey Chestnut has done it again! I am not sure how you spent your Fourth of July, but they celebrated it on Coney Island in Brooklyn with the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. In a contest as to who can eat the most hot dogs (with buns) in ten minutes, Chestnut won his 16th contest by consuming 62 hot dogs in ten minutes. This dubious achievement secured his record-setting 16th Mustard Belt. I wondered why this contest occurred on the Fourth of July until I heard a clip of the announcer who declared "that Chestnut was doing this for Freedom"! This contest demonstrated that the word Freedom has become quite misused and abused. From a Torah perspective, Freedom is not a license to do what one desires but rather the power to choose to live a life of responsibility. The Pesach Seder, the night that the Jewish People celebrate its Freedom, is a night of retelling our humble story of how we transitioned from an enslaved to a free people. We emphasize some of the warts in our past as we declare, "In the beginning, our ancestors worshiped idols'' until Avraham embraced the ways of the Creator. The climax of our journey to Freedom was reached when our ancestors received the Torah from G-d on Mount Sinai. Every year on Shavuos, we celebrate this Freedom by studying Torah more. As the Rabbis teach in Pirkei Avos, "A truly free person is someone who is immersed in Torah." Judaism puts a premium on intensive Torah Study as this exercise enables us to understand what responsibility is and how one can live a life that is truly free. Unfortunately, Western values have taken the sacred value of Freedom and turned it on its head. Day has become night, and night has become day in the name of personal choice. In an era where the lines of rights and responsibilities are increasingly blurred, it is important to remember the true meaning of Freedom. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 30, 2023

Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Shabbos

Happy Birthday, America! As Americans gather to celebrate its inception on July 4, it is worth reminding ourselves about the blessing of America. The public is fed a steady diet of pessimism and depressing news about America, so it's not an easy exercise to pause and reflect on the unique blessing called the United States of America. The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that will have a major impact on Observant Jews in America. For too long, people were forced to choose between their jobs and commitment to observing Shabbos. Many employees were told that even causing a company "minimum hardship" was grounds to refuse a Shabbos observant Jew any accommodation. In its landmark ruling of Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court clarified the religious expression of employers in the workplace. Groff v. DeJoy, concerned whether the U.S. Postal Service was required to accommodate an evangelical Christian mail carrier who refused to work on Sundays. When Gerald Groff began working for USPS, Sunday shifts weren't part of the job. But that changed when USPS signed a deal to deliver Amazon parcels. After receiving discipline for not working Sundays, Mr. Groff resigned. He sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to "reasonably accommodate a person's religious practices in the workplace. The OU submitted a " friend of the court'' brief in the case, which was quoted in the majority opinion. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous 9-0 decision, ruled in favor of Groff. The implications of this decision for Shabbos observant people in the United States cannot be overstated. The Supreme Court strengthened the rights of religious employees in their workplaces to receive accommodations for their religious needs from their employers. Not too long ago, Jews had to choose between keeping their jobs and keeping Shabbos. We have made a lot of progress since then, and the Supreme Court decision this week furthers the ability for a Jew to be observant of Shabbos in the United States. In an era where we are only too familiar with what is wrong in America, let us pause for a moment and be thankful with the blessings of America. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, June 2, 2023

The Greatest Sacrifice

"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory! Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking." General Dwight Eisenhower delivered these remarks to the Allied troops immediately before the D-Day invasion. This upcoming week we observe the anniversary of D-Day on June 6. It's hard to overstate the significance of this day and its implications for the world and the Jewish People in particular. For years, the Nazis had occupied nearly all of Europe, including France. The occupation deprived the Allies of opening a Western front to fight the Nazis. Hitler was clear about his ambitions to make the world Judenrein (free of Jews). Had Germany prevailed in World War Two, there would likely be no Jews left today. It is with that context that D-Day must be understood. The D-Day operation of June 6, 1944, brought together the Allied armies' land, air, and sea forces in what became known as the largest amphibious invasion in military history. The Nazis were well prepared for the Allied invasion. To prepare for an invasion, in 1942, Germany began construction on the Atlantic Wall, a network of bunkers, pillboxes, mines, and landing obstacles up and down the French coastline. The Allies, composed of American, British, and Canadian troops, finally stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Germans were ready for the Allies and put up a strong initial resistance. Over 9,000 Allied troops were killed in the first 24 hours on the Beaches of Normandy. Eventually, the Allied forces overwhelmed the Nazis and started the battle to liberate Europe from the Nazis. Today the Normandy American Cemetery, sited on a bluff high above the coast, is one of the world's best-known military memorials. These hallowed grounds preserve the remains of nearly 9,400 Americans who died during the Allied liberation of France. The Jewish People, in particular, will remain forever grateful for the greatest sacrifice these troops made in blood and treasure. With the help of G-d, these troops died by the thousands, so we can live to see another day. In an era where terms of sacrifice and dedication are cheapened, it's worth reflecting on how the Allied troops' sacrifice literally changed the world's trajectory. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Thoughts on Shavuos

As we celebrate the holiday of Shavuos, it is worth reflecting on the significance of this date and its impact on the Jewish People in particular and the world in general. Shavuos is the anniversary that G-d revealed the blueprint for humanity to live a life with the utmost holiness and Godliness on this mundane earth. G-d revealed this blueprint to us in what is known as the Torah. It is hard to overstate how transformative this transmission was to the Jewish People. The Torah unlocks the ability of a mortal being and allows him to live a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. The Torah enables the Jew to infuse spirituality and purpose into mundane and physical activities. The Torah has empowered the Jew to connect with the Divine even in the world's darkest moments and find that light in an increasingly dark world. In his book Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746) writes G-d created many spiritual manifestations in this world with His presence. However, one embodiment is more compelling and more intense than any other in this world. This manifestation of Godliness and holiness that one can connect in this experience is more profound and superior than any different experience. Rabbi Luzatto writes that this manifestation can only be found through Torah Study. That is another explanation of the famous words of the sages, ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם or the Study of Torah is equivalent to them all. I found this interpretation mindblowing and refreshing at the same time. It provides an entirely new and refreshing perspective on the power of Torah study. The conventional understanding of the purpose of Torah Study is to accumulate knowledge. For example, to know how to put Tefilin on his arm, he must study and be knowledgeable in the laws of Tefilin. However, there is another dimension that is entirely different and transcendent about Torah Study. It is the ability of a mortal being in this mundane world to connect with Godliness and holiness that will touch his soul to the core. For this reason, it is meaningful for our souls to study sections of the Torah that we have studied before, i.e., the weekly Parsha, or to explore areas of the Torah that may have little practical relevance. The truth is the connection to Godliness and holiness our souls connect with during this experience is so profound that it matters little what the topic is or how relevant the Talmudic discourse may be for the participants in the class. אשרינו מה טוב חלקינו! Fortunate is our lot in life that we have the gift of Torah! As we celebrate the Yom Tov of Shavuos, let us reflect on this unparalleled opportunity for spiritual experiences that the Torah offers us in the jungle of this mundane world. Have a Great Yom Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 19, 2023

A Treasured Book

A 1,100-year-old Tanach, one of the world's oldest surviving biblical manuscripts, sold for $38 million in New York on Wednesday, becoming among the most expensive books ever bought. The manuscript is the world's oldest nearly complete copy of the Hebrew Bible. It was handwritten roughly 1,000 years ago on 792 pages of sheepskin, includes all 24 books of the Bible, and is missing only about eight pages. The Codex Sassoon, a leather-bound, handwritten parchment volume containing a nearly complete Hebrew Bible, was purchased by former US Ambassador to Romania Alfred H. Moses on behalf of the American Friends of ANU and donated to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where it will join the collection. Sotheby's Judaica specialist Sharon Liberman Mintz said the $38 million price tag "reflects the profound power, influence, and significance of the Hebrew Bible, which is an indispensable pillar of humanity." If you are wondering why the buyer paid a handsome sum of $38 million for the Tanach, please listen to his words. "The Hebrew Bible is the most influential book in History and constitutes the bedrock of Western civilization. I rejoice in knowing it belongs to the Jewish people," Moses said. "It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see that it resides in a place with global access to all people." As we approach Shavuos, the anniversary of the Jewish People receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, reflecting on this awesome event is worthwhile. The impact the Torah had on civilization is far beyond the Jewish People. When our ancestors embraced their mission to the Kingdom of Kohanim and a Holy People, it had a profound impact on the world. The events at Mt. Sinai were a turning point not only in Jewish History but in World History. The historian Paul Johnson wrote this in his book The History of the Jews. "Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews, it might have been a much emptier place." Jewish Wisdom teaches us about the spiritual connection one can attain through Torah Study. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto writes in Derech Hashem about the topic. He explains that while there are many different opportunities and experiences that one can have to G-d in this world, there is one medium that is more compelling and significant than any other: Torah Study. The more an individual studies Torah, the more he becomes connected to G-d. Society has radically changed since the Tanach sold by Sotheby's was written 1,100 years ago. The printing press invented by Gutenberg in the 15th century and the more recent development of the internet have opened new opportunities for Torah Study. King David wrote that the Torah is complete and perfect, and it is restorative for the soul. I don't think many would argue that our souls could use some restoration. The need is clear and the solution of a more committed approach to Torah Study is here. As we approach Shavuos, we must ask ourselves, "What are we waiting for?" Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, May 12, 2023

Equality for Some and Not All

Liberté. égalité. Fraternité. French for liberty , Equality and fraternity and are the ideals from the French Revolution and enshrined in the French Constitution. These values have been the foundation for everyone living with equal rights in a democratic society. On this side of the pond, the American Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, were inspired by the lofty words articulated in the Declaration of Independence that that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The common perception in these Western democracies is that discrimination is prohibited and equal rights a fundamental right that no one can deny any individual his or her rigths. A closer look at both these democratic systems reveals that this is not the case. For example, In line with France's laws on laïcité (secularism), it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion , including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, schools, and universities (except for visitors). This is not limited to its Muslim citizens. The ban on wearing religious symbols in public extends to Jews wearing Yarmulkes and Kippahs. The French Education Ministry manual for public schools sends an annual memo reminding teachers that wearing religious symbols in public schools is illegal and urging them to punish non-compliant students. In the French Canadian province of Quebec, the controversial Bill 21 prevents judges, police officers, teachers, and public servants from wearing symbols such as the kippah, turban, or hijab while at work. One may pretend the United States does not suffer from any selective discrimination. That is not necessarily the case. In the United States, discrimination based on religion is protected under Title VII and the Civil Rights Act. It is a protected class that includes race, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information. Other individuals are not so fortunate. For example, anyone that is bald, obese, or belongs to a particular political party is not part of a protected class. Therefore, the anti-discrimination laws do not extend to these individuals. The U.S. government and its courts are very particular about who may be considered a protected class. It's hard to entertain the notion that the basis of the anti-discrimination laws is based upon Derech Eretz and the fundamental belief that everyone is created in the image of G-d. Alas, that is not the case, as there are many people whom it is perfectly legal to discriminate against. One can fairly conclude that the protected classes are less about Derech Eretz to all individuals and more about showing deference and celebrating specific demographics. The modern application of Equality extends to other areas of society as well. For example, to have a company listed on the NASDAQ, one must adhere to the Diversity Rules, which state that U.S. companies have one female director and one director who self-identifies as a racial minority or as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. It's interesting to note that the Nasdaq Diversity Rule does not extend to other groups not in the protected class. Hollywood has followed in the selective discrimination path as starting in 2024, films must meet specific diversity requirements in order to be eligible for the best picture award, which is Hollywood's most sought-after accolade. The new guidelines include requirements like at least one actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group being in a significant role, or the story must center on women, LGBTQ people, a racial group, or disabled people. I wonder about the demonstrators in Israel that are protesting against judicial reform about the need to preserve democracy as to which utopian system they are fantasizing about. Israel has its own interesting way with the application of democracy. In 2019, the Israeli Supreme Court banned communities from having gender separated concerts, despite the desire of the attendees to have the cultural event in that fashion. It appears many in Israel fancy the notion of democracy as they do in France with an attempt to impose secular values on others in the name of Equality. The Torah and its standards have been attacked for being inconsistent with the values of Equality. For example, some have criticized the elevated status of a Kohen and a Levi. The standard of a male Kohen receiving the First Aliyah and the male Levi receiving the Second Aliyah is inconsistent with Equality and thus discrimination. There are progressive streams in Judaism that have done away with the traditional system in favor of Equality and therefore, any male or female may receive any aliyah. The Torah recognizes that people do not inherently have rights but rather responsibilities. It is precisely for that reason that a male Kohen gets called up first to the Torah and the male Levi follows him before other males can be called up. The lineup for Aliyahs to the Torah does not suggest that a male Kohen or male Levi is morally superior to others. Rather, it reflects the notion that to their unique destiny and spiritual roadmap, they may have some responsibilities that others may not. In a responsibility-centered society, one has to ask what responsibilities they have to fulfill their unique mission in life. Equality is definitely an important value when applied correctly. For those that champion Equality at all costs and are more than eager to do away with tradition, one should reflect upon the consequences that this path has thrown toward our society. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 28, 2023

Israel at 75

"Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land. The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became…There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country". Mark Twain , Innocents Abroad, 1867 כֹּה אָמַר יְיָ צְבָאוֹת עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלָ ִם וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ מֵרֹב יָמִים: וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת מְשַׂחֲקִים בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ: There shall yet be old men and old women sitting in the broad places of Jerusalem, every man with his staff in his hand for every age. And the broad places of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the broad places thereof. (Zecharia 8:4) The description from Mark Twain about the Land of Israel referred to as Palestine, provides us with a snapshot of how Israel looked a mere 150 years ago. Then, it was desolate, depressing and projected the feeling of an abandoned country. It is with that context that one can appreciate the prophecy of Zecharia, who declared thousands of years ago that we, as a people, would return to our homeland after being in exile for a prolonged period. The mere thought of ever returning to our land, let alone having children playing in the streets, was sheer fantasy. The fantasy of the past has turned into the reality of today. Regardless of anyone's views on Zionism and how it intersects with the coming of the Mashiach, one cannot deny the modern-day miracle of the Jewish People returning to their ancient homeland. A hundred years ago, in 1922, there were under 84,000 Jews living in the Land of Israel. Today in 2023, there are over 7 million Jews in Israel!! Considering the entire Jewish population in the world is just about 15 million, Israel currently has more than half of the global Jewish population. The number of Jews worldwide, including in the United States, continue to decline for various reasons, and assimilation is the most prominent factor. The numbers in Israel continue to grow in the opposite direction as more and more Jews worldwide are finding their way back to their ancestral homeland. On a spiritual level, it is estimated today that there are over 3000 yeshivas or centers for advanced Jewish learning. The Mir Yeshiva alone has over 9,200 students and over 800 students in its largest daily shiur. In addition, there are countless shuls and minyan factories in every city, town, and neighborhood. The proliferation of Judaism and Jewish life is nothing less than breathtaking and miraculous. Recent events have highlighted the divisions that exist within Israeli society over proposed judicial reforms. No doubt, this is unsettling as people tend to focus on issues that divide one another and not the things that unite us. The Achilles heel of the Jewish People has been our inability to focus on the things that unite us. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and this controversy works itself out without too much collateral damage. Another thing to ponder is that while one cannot be naive about some tension and controversy between religious and secular factions in Israel, it's important to note the universal Jewish character of the modern Jewish state. For example, El Al does not fly on Shabbos or Yom Tov since it was state-owned for years, and the state prohibited it from operating on these holy days. Now, that is many days to give up revenue and forfeit customers to your competition. A company or country can only do that if they have values; in this case, there is a country that has a value for Shabbos. I am sure someone will be able to point out many unsavory things about the Israeli government and establishment. Still, on this particular day, I am forever grateful to G-d for increasing the Jewish population in Eretz Yisroel from 84,000 to 7 million in the last century and for bringing His children home. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 21, 2023

A Win for Jewish Education in Florida

With a steady diet of depressing events in our daily news feed, we have become worn out and disillusioned. As the global village shrinks, we hear about painful and tragic events more quickly. There is also a near disbelief that anything positive and helpful can emerge from any government entity. With all that in the background, I think a really historic and positive event for the Jews living in Florida may have been overlooked. I am, of course, referring to the recently passed Universal School Choice that was passed this month by a majority in the Florida House and Senate and signed into law by the Governor. Starting this coming school year, Florida students in K-12 schools will be eligible to receive approximately $8,000 to use towards tuition and other educational expenses, with no income eligibility requirements. Regardless of anyone’s political leanings or philosophies, the elected officials, including the Governor, deserve our gratitude for this seismic change for Jewish living in Florida. The significance of this development and its impact on our community cannot be overstated. As one of the biggest challenges in modern American Jewish life is the affordability of Jewish Day School tuition, this law will go a long way in mitigating this near crisis for any family that desires a Jewish education. Jacksonville is known for many quality public schools that are free of charge to any student. It’s hard for any school to compete with a product offered for free by a competitor. It’s not unusual for an Orthodox Jewish family with just a few children to spend over $50,000 (after-tax dollars) per year on private school tuition. It’s also important to note that it costs more to educate a student than even full tuition paid by some parents. Most Jewish schools in Florida invest at least $15,000 per student; in many schools, even full tuition does not cover that expense. This results in large deficits at the outset of the school year and puts enormous pressure on the fundraising infrastructure of the Jewish schools. While the passage of Universal School Choice will not solve every financial issue related to Jewish school affordability, it will go a long way to assisting families and our schools statewide. It will no longer be an option for someone to choose not to send their children to a Jewish school because of affordability. In an era of increasing challenges on the macro and micro levels, it’s essential to pause and celebrate this victory for our community. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, April 14, 2023

Why Keep Kosher

Hey Rabbi, I'm in Trader Joe's, and I see they just got this new cool organic seaweed product, and it's all the rage on Twitter. The only thing is that it has a Hechsher that appears to be the Vaad of the Mariana Islands. I researched it online, and there is a mixed review on the acceptability of the symbol. Please advise.  This question is (more or less) a fairly common one that I receive at least weekly. Gone are the days when kosher certification meant looking at several Manischewitz products in the local supermarket aisle. The OU (Orthodox Union) Kosher itself is the world's largest and most widely recognized kosher certifying agency, with over 1,261,754 products produced in more than 3,000 plants located in 103 countries around the world. That is just one kosher certifying agency in the world! There are dozens of agencies all over the world, including our very own Gesher K agency based in Jacksonville. One can now find a gourmet kosher meal on par with any cuisine in any space, from the Whitehouse to the most elegant restaurant and cruiseliner. The prominent publication of The Wine Spectator routinely lists Israeli (kosher) wine as some of the top 100 wines in the world! As the kosher industry continues to advance more than ever, it's important to pause and reflect on the true nature of the reason to adhere to Kosher dietary observances.  This week's Parsha provides an insight into this fundamental aspect of observant Jewish life.  כִּ֣י ׀ אֲנִ֣י ה' הַֽמַּעֲלֶ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְיֹ֥ת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָֽנִי׃  For I am Hashem, the One who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. In essence, the reason to maintain a Kosher diet is for us to retain our holy spirit within us. As the Rabbis explain, just as foods have physical properties, they also have spiritual properties. The physical properties can be viewed in a lab: calories, fat, carbs, etc. The spiritual properties cannot be viewed in a lab but are nonetheless present. The spiritual properties that are productive and conducive to spiritual growth are referred to in the Torah as "Tahor." The spiritual properties that are corrosive and toxic to our spiritual growth are referred to as tamei or impure. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in his famed Mesilas Yesharim the consequences of not adhering to kosher dietary laws: "The forbidden foods bring spiritual contamination in a person's heart and soul so that the holiness of G-d, blessed be He, departs and withdraws from him".  The next time you are strolling down the aisle in your local grocery store and you out a product with a kosher symbol in the cart, you are not just doing a mitzvah. Instead, you declare within yourself a desire to be holy. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 31, 2023

The cost of Internal Strife

The most effective BDS campaign targeting Israel may be unfolding before our very own eyes. The objective of the adversaries of Israel with BDS has had limited success. Still, the current kneecapping of Israel in the realm of security, economy, and diplomacy is going full throttle. In the greatest of sad ironies, this campaign has emerged internally from a growing number of Israeli Jews. Fueled by the dissatisfaction with the proposed judicial reform by the majority of elected representatives in the Israeli Knesset, this opposition has morphed into a force that is undermining the foundations on which Israel rests.  To be clear, I am not arguing in favor of judicial reforms. I am observing that there have already been consequences that have been harmful to Israel, and who knows how far this can unravel. Recently, a political opponent of the Israeli Prime Minister called upon the allies of Israel to boycott the elected leader of Israel. The PM of Israel visited the UK in London, and upon his arrival at 10 Downing was heckled by Israelis, declaring, "everyone knows that Bibi is a criminal!"  Some hi-tech companies have chosen to take their funds and assets out of Israel and relocate to countries that include Spain and Portugal. A few centuries after Jews were burned to death for not abandoning their faith and accepting Christianity, some Jews are choosing to return there because they do not like the judicial reform proposals in Israel. Most damaging is the refusal of many reservists in the IDF to serve. In normal circumstances, this would be treated as insubordination, but now some are reacting as if these soldiers are heroes for threatening not to serve. Israel's neighborhood has enemies that wish to destroy the Jewish State regardless of how judges are nominated. On the diplomatic stage, the leadership has been upbraided by its allies. Consider the following. French President Emmanuel Macron told the Israeli PM that Israel risks disconnecting itself from democracy if it pursues the planned judicial reform. Macron apparently had no issues lecturing Bibi, even though he chose this month to bypass French Parliament to force through a highly unpopular bill raising the retirement age in France. The UN has weighed in and declared that the reforms would drastically undermine the rule of law in Israel. This statement was especially rich coming from the UN Human Rights Council, which has autocratic and repressive regimes among its ranks. Who can blame the world for such a reaction when a growing number of Israelis publicly declare for the world to hear that Israel is turning into a dictatorship?  As Pesach is celebrated this week, it is worth remembering one of the main lessons of this season. An individual could not bring the Pesach offering. It must be brought as a group. Therefore, one had to seek out other people and connect with the group in order to celebrate Pesach. The larger idea is that we as a people must realize that despite our differences, we are one people and our similarities outweigh our differences. Our adversaries, historically and today, make no distinction as to which party one vote for or what one feels about the Israeli Supreme Court. There was a heartwarming anecdote that gives me some hope. The protestors opposing the reforms arrived in Bnei Brak, a predominantly Orthodox city, to demonstrate and challenge the residents on this contentious issue. What happened next, however, nobody expected.  The city's Orthodox Jews greeted the demonstrators with drinks and warm cholent, Jewish music was played, people danced, and the demonstrators' reacted positively to the overtures. It was the first time for many of those present that they met people who opposed their own lifestyle. Orthodox and progressives finally spoke to one another. It just took a bowl of cholent and some music to break down the barriers.  As we are on the cusp of Pesach, it may be worthwhile to recall the heartwarming story that occurred in Bnei Brak. The alternative path of division and discord will yield a price that will be unbearably painful to bear. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 24, 2023

Will You Answer the Haggadah?

We begin this week not only with a new parsha but a new sefer as we begin to read from the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). It opens up with the words ``Vayikra el Moshe” or “ And He Called to Moshe.” Many of the commentaries have pointed out that though it’s evident from the text that G-d called out to Moshe, it doesn’t explicitly say so as it typically does in other textual settings. The Nesivos Shalom quotes the Midrash that a heavenly voice emanates from Mount Sinai daily and exhorts the Jewish people to repentance. He questions this by asking why we can’t hear this voice emanating from Sinai, and if we can’t hear it, what’s the point of it being declared? He writes the following profound idea. There is spiritual energy being released in the world daily. Some of us make a choice to capitalize on these sparks and internalize them into our souls. This enables us to embark on a journey of self-improvement in this world and allows our soul to connect to G-d in this finite and temporary world through meaningful Torah study, heartfelt prayer, and practicing acts of kindness. Unfortunately, some of us take a look at these spiritual sparks and even experience the spiritual energy that originates from Sinai and just take a pass for whatever reason. These souls lie dormant and become atrophied and dehydrated. In life a person needs to feel as if they are being filled with purpose. Otherwise, they will feel the need to fill that void in unhelpful and negative ways. There is a powerful phrase in our Shabbos liturgy mentioned, and that is שבענו מטובך.  This is translated as “satisfy us from your goodness”. Judaism is enriching as it allows a person to become filled with holiness and Godliness in an otherwise mundane world. An individual that can utilize these opportunities to connect will be satisfaction and purpose in life. The reason we pray for  שבענו מטובך is we realize the stakes if one does not satisfy ourselves with the goodness of our faith.  We continue to be presented with opportunities to fill our souls with enriching faith. Moshe heard that call over three thousand years ago. That call continues to reach us in our daily lives. So we have to ask ourselves the hard question of how we are answering that call. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 17, 2023

A New Season Has Arrived

The Pesach season begins to go into high gear with the arrival of Rosh Chodesh Nissan. This date does not merely signal the arrival of the month that Pesach finds itself in or that Pesach is two weeks away. Rosh Chodesh Nissan is significant in its own right. In fact, the Haggadah entertains a possibility that the Mitzvah of retelling the story of the Exodus should take place not on Pesach but two weeks earlier on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. What would be the rationale for observing the core Mitzvah of Pesach two weeks before the Yom Tov begins? Is there any other Yom Tov with the core Mitzvahs observed two weeks before it starts? The basis for this conversation is our tradition's appreciation for the month of Nissan. The Mishkan was inaugurated in the desert on the first of Nissan. The date was not a coincidence in scheduling. The purpose of the Mishkan was for the Jewish People to have a central house of worship in which they could connect to God’s presence. According to Rashi, the mandate to construct the Mishkan was immediately after Yom Kippur in the aftermath of the debacle of the Golden Calf. Over 40 days, Moshe engaged in intense prayer, and on the tenth of Tishrei, G-d responded with the words, I have forgiven. The following morning, the campaign to construct the Mishkan began. The purpose of this campaign was not only to build a structure but also to restore the Divine Presence in the Jewish Community. The construction was completed in the month of Kislev, but the Mishkan was only inaugurated on the first of Nissan. This date was not chosen by accident but rather carefully selected. The Rabbis have taught that different dates have not only different meanings but also have various spiritual manifestations in this world. As the Torah states about the First of Nissan, This Month is the First of All Months for You. The First of Nissan represents this powerful spiritual manifestation in this world where the Jewish People become a Nation. This date is so auspicious because it ushers the first stages of freedom to a beleaguered nation that was subjugated to foreign rule. As we learn throughout the Haggadah, authentic freedom is the ability to live with meaning and purpose and not be subject to the will of other entities. Since the First of Nissan was such a turning point in our history, it is no wonder that the Haggadah entertains the notion that we should begin retelling the story of the Exodus on the First of Nissan. Although the debate concludes that we start this Mitzvah on Pesach night and not on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the process of preparing for this season begins as the month of Nissan begins. It is time to contemplate the question of what freedom means to you. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 10, 2023

Building a Foundation

No donation is too big, and no donation is too small. Every organization that needs to fundraise to operate has lived by this statement in one way or another. With some donors, the message needs to be that we appreciate every donation, no matter how small. With other donors, the message needs to be that we need more significant gifts to sustain and fuel the organization's success.  With that in mind, the beginning of our Parsha teaching us about the obligation to contribute to Machtzis Hashekel/ Half Shekel is quite bizarre. The Torah states that a wealthy person may not increase his contribution, and the poor may not ask for a scholarship. This defies any conventional fundraising that seeks to maximize donations from the affluent and will give the folks with limited means a break. (There was an additional reason for contributing a half shekel as that would indicate the population's size, which might explain the half shekel. Nonetheless, there might be another way to conduct a census without everyone contributing a half shekel!) It's instructive to note that the contributions of the silver half-shekel coins were applied to the making of the sockets or אדנים. The sockets had two openings in which the planks or קרשים were placed. These sockets were essentially functioning as the foundation of the Mishkan as it was literally upholding the Mishkan. There is a profound lesson on community building that can be learned from the lesson of the Half Shekel contributions. When it comes to any area of Jewish communal life, one should contribute according to their means. However, when laying down a foundation for the community, all must be equal participants. If only the more affluent people contribute, then those with more limited means will not be as invested. Everyone needs to have "skin in the game". The Torah teaches that giving and sharing our financial resources with a worthy cause is an opportunity for the donor as he has the ability to have the mitzvah of helping others. As the Talmud teaches, G-d could have easily provided for all the needy directly. He created this paradigm of donors and recipients for the donor to have the opportunity to give. This applies in all areas of Tzedaka but especially when creating a foundation for the community. Times may have changed but the lesson of the half-shekel is more pertinent than ever. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, March 3, 2023

Why is this happening to me?

Why me? Why, G-d, is this happening to me? These words are rarely, if ever, uttered when something amazing happens to an individual! For example, if someone gets a great promotion at work with an increased salary or gets married to a most special person, are these words uttered?  The expression of "Why me?" or "Why is this happening to me" are reserved for what we perceive as cruel fate. Why do I have to deal with this particular hardship or painful experience? There are macro events on the global stage and micro events in our daily lives that cause undue stress. It is precisely at these moments that we may ponder the unfairness of our fate in life. Can we be honest with ourselves and recall if we had similar thoughts of "Why, me" during a truly wonderful moment in our lives? Perhaps subconsciously, I think we expect perfection in virtually all areas of life. When we receive blessings and good fortune, we attribute that to our hard work or exceptional talent. When things do not unfold that way, we are disappointed with G-d and others for letting us down. The disappointment leads to us living an existence devoid of happiness and joy. So many of us barely exist as we lament the terrible fortune and raw luck that life has thrown our way.  The month of Adar and the Purim story can teach us much about attaining Simcha (happiness) in difficult situations. Our rabbis have taught us to increase our joy once Adar is here. So what is it about Adar and Purim that should trigger happy thoughts? After all, other miraculous events occurred in different months that don't call for happiness.  The story of Purim is unique in the biblical context as it's the only book that doesn't mention the name of G-d. There was immense darkness during that era as a genocidal plot to exterminate Jews was hatched and nearly carried out. The heroes of the story, Mordechai and Esther, rose to the occasion at the right moments and demonstrated faith and bravery on behalf of their people. The Megila records that after the evil decree was averted, the Jews of that era experienced Simcha. On a superficial level, it means that they were happy and relieved that they lived to tell the tale. On a deeper level, the Simcha they experienced was internalizing this idea that the blessings and challenges in our lives are part of our life's journey and greater destiny. There were various critical moments in the Purim story that Mordechai and Esther could have easily stated, “Why, me.” Truly great people do not ask those questions, nor does it deprive them of simcha during difficult times. Especially in dark moments, we must realize that we are not the victims of cruel fate. If there is even one lesson to learn from the Purim story, I suggest that we remember that true Simcha does not mean having a pain-free life. True Simcha is a recognition that everything that occurs, good and otherwise, is there as tools to ultimately enhance our journey in life and bring us closer to our tikkun and destiny. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 24, 2023

A Pure Foundation

Amid great darkness, we witnessed a bright light. I am referring to the unspeakable tragedy of the terror attack in Jerusalem shortly before Shabbos last week. A Palestinian motorist plowed into a crowded bus stop and killed three innocent Jews. Among the casualties were two young brothers Asher Menachem Paley who was eight and Yaakov Yisroel Paley who was six. Two precious young innocent children whose lives were snuffed out in an instant in an act of the most violent Jew-hatred. Their father was seriously injured and remains hospitalized in serious condition.  The family sat shiva, and it was nothing short of remarkable. The visitors who came to pay condolences traveled from around Israel to their modest apartment to comfort the bereaved. Jews from all walks of life, backgrounds, and religious observances. The family estimates that at least half of the visitors were people who did not know them before the tragedy. They came as members of a larger Jewish family. The fact they did not know the Paley family did not stop many visitors from shedding tears and weeping as they came to wish their condolences. Great Sages, Rabbis, and the Prime Minister were among the guests who paid their respects to a Shiva filled with emotion and heartbreak.  One thing that stood out was the incredible strength of the boys' mother, Devorah Paley. She said that despite losing two precious jewels, she still has strength and faith. The children were given to her as gifts and treasures to cherish. They now reached their “tikkun” (purpose of living). She recalled as she reached the scene and saw paramedics administering CPR to her son and quickly realized the resuscitation efforts would not succeed. The grieving mother called for peace and prayer. Don't look for someone to blame or revenge, as this was a message from God. She called her children that were killed sacrifices for the People of Israel. She pleaded with the visitors that came to pay her condolences and the Jewish People that the sacrifices should not be in vain.  In the midst of her heartbreak and tragedy, she was able to teach all of us an important lesson. She taught us that while the most devout and pious are not immune from tragedy, the faith that someone has in G-d will give them strength to endure any challenge in life.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 17, 2023

Faith amidst Tragedy

Amid great darkness, we witnessed a bright light. I am referring to the unspeakable tragedy of the terror attack in Jerusalem shortly before Shabbos last week. A Palestinian motorist plowed into a crowded bus stop and killed three innocent Jews. Among the casualties were two young brothers Asher Menachem Paley who was eight and Yaakov Yisroel Paley who was six. Two precious young innocent children whose lives were snuffed out in an instant in an act of the most violent Jew-hatred. Their father was seriously injured and remains hospitalized in serious condition.  The family sat shiva, and it was nothing short of remarkable. The visitors who came to pay condolences traveled from around Israel to their modest apartment to comfort the bereaved. Jews from all walks of life, backgrounds, and religious observances. The family estimates that at least half of the visitors were people who did not know them before the tragedy. They came as members of a larger Jewish family. The fact they did not know the Paley family did not stop many visitors from shedding tears and weeping as they came to wish their condolences. Great Sages, Rabbis, and the Prime Minister were among the guests who paid their respects to a Shiva filled with emotion and heartbreak.  One thing that stood out was the incredible strength of the boys' mother, Devorah Paley. She said that despite losing two precious jewels, she still has strength and faith. The children were given to her as gifts and treasures to cherish. They now reached their “tikkun” (purpose of living). She recalled as she reached the scene and saw paramedics administering CPR to her son and quickly realized the resuscitation efforts would not succeed. The grieving mother called for peace and prayer. Don't look for someone to blame or revenge, as this was a message from God. She called her children that were killed sacrifices for the People of Israel. She pleaded with the visitors that came to pay her condolences and the Jewish People that the sacrifices should not be in vain.  In the midst of her heartbreak and tragedy, she was able to teach all of us an important lesson. She taught us that while the most devout and pious are not immune from tragedy, the faith that someone has in G-d will give them strength to endure any challenge in life.  Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch

Friday, February 10, 2023

The WHY of Judaism

As we once again read and study Parshas Yisro, it is a great time to review the fundamentals of Judaism. Parshas Yisro contains the Divine Revelation to the Jewish People, which makes the audacious claim that this was a national experience unlike any religion. The Jewish People accepted the Torah, and its sacred mission was embraced by our ancestors and passed down from generation to generation.  When people are asked about Judaism and its practices, the general responses are centered around the "WHAT" and "HOW." For example, most observant Jews can describe WHAT Shabbos is about. The more learned people can instruct us on how to observe Shabbos properly. There are hundreds of chapters in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) on how to keep Shabbos properly. However, there is another essential element to Shabbos in particular and Judaism in general. That is the WHY of Shabbos and Judaism. If one is proficient in the WHAT and HOW but lacks an understanding of the WHY, there is a fundamental deficiency in the individual Avodas Hashem (service of G-d). People that forget the WHY and just focus on the WHAT and HOW are in danger of having the Mitzvos become mindless rituals. If a person's relationship with Judaism is performing rituals, he is in danger of becoming "burned out." Furthermore, the prospects of our precious heritage being passed down to the next generation are at risk. Who can blame the youth and the future of the Jewish people for not being excited about what they perceive as mindless rituals?  If one focuses on the WHY of Judaism, one not only has an appreciation of the Mitzvah but the attitude and performance of the Mitzvah are entirely different. This week's Parsha of Yisro reminds us of why G-d proposed that the Jewish People accept the Torah. It was that we should become the “Kingdom of Kohanim and a Holy Nation". The basic understanding of this lofty idea is that we should become flag bearers of Holiness and Godliness in this finite world. The Mitzvahs that the Torah teaches us to practice and perform are there for mortal beings to become holy and have a relationship with an eternal and loving infinite G-d. For example, when one makes Kiddush on Shabbos, he can infuse the mundane (cup of wine) with Holiness and Godliness. The mundane world we spend time in is filled with opportunities to elevate the ordinary with holiness. The WHAT and HOW is described in the Torah in detail. It's essential to never lose sight of our WHY. As someone once remarked, "if you know the WHY, you can live any HOW." Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Friday, February 3, 2023

A False Choice

One thing that holds us back in life is embracing a false choice as reality. So many things are presented in a binary manner, and one is forced to choose between the two. It takes courage to look above the clouds and realize that this narrative is inaccurate. One well-known example is that to succeed in business, it is necessary to make compromises in Torah and Judaism. Unfortunately, popular rhetoric is something to the effect of how one can make all the necessary advances and excel in their field if they are held back by halachic restrictions!  This week many individuals from our community in Jacksonville had a first-hand experience of witnessing this rhetoric as a false choice. I was fortunate to participate in Kollel's trip to Lakewood. The participants visited and studied at the famed BMG Yeshiva, which has a student body of approximately 8,000 students. The study experience of in-depth Torah Study for the trip participants was a whole new level in being immersive and exhilarating. There was one additional stop on the itinerary that was eye-opening in shattering the myth of a false choice that we are regularly confronted. We had the pleasure of visiting a title company headquartered in Lakewood called Madison Title. What is most unusual about this company is not that it is a top-rated and well-regarded company in its industry. What stood out to our participants was how the values of the Torah are enshrined in the operations and culture of the company. The company's President in the conference room delivers a class on Daf Yomi at 7:00 am to any employees and guests. A Shachris Minyan on-site follows that. Perhaps, the most stunning example of how This value is internalized is that the company has Torah educators on staff, and company employees can reserve short study sessions during the workday for spiritual stimulation.    The notion of investing in the employees' well-being by providing perks in the workspace is popular in Silicon Valley. Google is famous for providing gourmet food, fitness facilities, and occasional massages. All of these perks are free to employees. The rationale is that if the employee is nurtured, the performance will increase. Who has ever heard of a company offering its employees Torah education during the workday to provide its workforce with a spiritual perk? The Jacksonville participants saw a company in real-time that is most successful in its field and anchored in Torah and tradition.  The next time one fancies the idea that one must attend fewer minyanim or study less Torah to be successful in the world of business, it might be worth remembering the visit of a group from Jacksonville to a  Title Company in Lakewood. Have a Peaceful Shabbos, Rabbi Yaakov Fisch.

Most Destructive Word in the English Language

I have always been intrigued by the “word of the year.” This last year of 2023, Merriam Webster designated “authentic” as the WOTY (word of ...